Many of us don't get enough sleep. In the morning, we're up early getting the kids ready for school, or we're at the gym, squeezing in a workout before heading to the office. In the evening, we have commitments after work, such as attending corporate functions, or we're catching up with personal admin, so we turn into bed late. And, when our heads finally hit the pillow, we're so busy thinking about what's coming up the next day, we can't even drop off! Rather than thinking about good sleep as a "nice to have," getting a proper night's sleep should be one of our top priorities. Not having enough affects your health, and also your performance at work (as it impairs your memory and ability to focus).
Why Sleep Matters
Sleep gives your brain a much-needed break from the stresses of the day. It rejuvenates your mind, and allows it to process information. But how much sleep do we need? Although everyone's needs are different, studies show that adults who get seven to eight hours a day have lower mortality rates, and tend to be healthier, than those who have more or less than this amount. If you don't get enough sleep, you may experience a number of health problems. For example, you can be more vulnerable to catching colds, and you may have trouble maintaining a healthy weight, because a lack of sleep impairs your body's ability to regulate the hormones associated with appetite. Even worse, people who sleep fewer than four hours, or more than eight hours, a day are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, depression, diabetes, dementia, and heart disease. Your sleeping habits can also have an impact on your performance at work. Not getting enough sleep can affect your memory, learning, creativity, productivity, and emotional stability. You may also be more irritable, lack concentration, or have problems focusing on your daily tasks.
What can Disturb Your Sleep?
There are medical conditions, such as insomnia, sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, that can cause long-term sleeping problems. But most short-term issues are down to stress, or because your brain is stimulated too close to bedtime. This is often as a result of working late or consuming caffeine or alcohol in the evening. You may experience problems if you don't go to bed at a consistent time, and this can be a particular issue for those who travel regularly. Not having the right sleep environment because your bedroom is too hot, too cold, too bright, or too noisy can also stop you getting enough sleep.
10 Practical Ways to get a Better Night's Sleep
Here are a number of practical ways to stop tossing and turning, if you have trouble sleeping.
- Exercise Regularly: Daily exercise can improve your sleep. You release feel-good hormones – endorphins – which help reduce stress, elevate your mood, and relieve anxiety and depression. Just exercising for 20 to 30 minutes a day can help. However, limit your exercise to mornings and afternoons. Doing a strenuous activity within two or three hours of your bedtime raises your body temperature and makes it harder to sleep.
- Increase Your Exposure to Daylight: The more natural daylight you're exposed to, the more your body produces the hormone melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy. Aim to get at least two to three hours each day, and this will help you fall asleep at night. If you're stuck in an office, the lack of daylight may make you feel sleepy during the day. Go out into the fresh air at lunchtime, and work by a window, if possible.
- Avoid Eating Large Meals Close to Bedtime: You might find that, when you eat a large dinner, you struggle to sleep while your stomach digests it. In particular, spicy and acidic foods can cause heartburn, which makes it more difficult to sleep well. A light snack, however, may satisfy your hunger before bed, and allow you to sleep. Eat foods that are low in sugar, such as bananas, or wholegrain cereal with milk, yogurt or granola.
- Avoid Drinking Caffeine or Alcohol in the Evening: If you have drinks that contain caffeine or alcohol too close to bedtime, they can interfere with your sleep patterns. Caffeine stays in your system for up to 12 hours, so limit your consumption to the morning. And even though alcohol can help you fall asleep, it can also cause you to wake up periodically through the night, so drink it in moderation.
- Alleviate Stress Before Bed: It's important to feel relaxed before you go to sleep, so write down any sources of stress before your bedtime. If you have a To-Do List, cross off what you've accomplished that day, and write down the tasks you need to do the next day. This way, you'll find it easier to relax so that you're not worrying about forgetting important things while you should be sleeping.
- Establish a Regular Sleep Pattern: You can improve your chances of getting a good night's sleep by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Consistency is the key, so don't break your pattern at the weekends, when it may be more tempting to stay up late and then sleep in the next morning! Discover your ideal sleep schedule by experimenting over the course of a week or two. Go to bed at the same time every night, and sleep until you naturally wake up. Eventually, you'll do so at the same time each day (although your body may take longer to regulate itself if you are particularly sleep-deprived).
- Stick to a Familiar Routine: Get into the right frame of mind by establishing a bedtime routine. For example, you may read a book, enjoy a cup of herbal tea, or take a relaxing bath. Meditation and other relaxation techniques can be useful for winding down before you go to bed.
Tip: There are a number of apps that can help you drift off, measure the quality of your sleep or play white noise to ease your transition from waking to sleeping.
- Create the Right Environment: Avoid using your bedroom as a place to work or watch TV. If you use your bed exclusively for sleeping, your mind and body will recognize that getting into it means that it's time to go to sleep. Your bedroom should have a temperature of around 65°F (18°C) and adequate ventilation. Drown out any background noise by playing calming music or white noise. Use low-wattage lightbulbs in your bedroom, and make sure it's completely dark when you turn out the light. Do this by investing in blackout curtains, or by wearing an eye mask. If you have to get up during the night, don't turn on your main lights, as this will wake you up fully. Use a side lamp instead.
- Keep a Sleep Diary: A sleep diary can help you identify the habits that affect your ability to sleep. Make a note of what you consumed before bed, particularly alcohol and caffeine. If you take any medication, include this information as well. Mention whether you did any exercise or relaxing activities, or if your day was particularly stressful. This will show what has a positive or negative impact on your ability to nod off. Write down your thoughts before you go to bed, track the number of hours you sleep, and describe how you feel in the morning. Over time, you'll be able to recognize patterns and use this information to improve your sleep.
Tip: If these suggestions don't improve your sleep, you may want to see a sleep specialist to determine whether you suffer from a sleep disorder, such as insomnia, sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome.
- Take a Nap: Short naps can boost your energy and help you perform at your best throughout the day. Research has shown that afternoon naps can help improve work productivity. Organizations such as Google™ and the Huffington Post® provide rooms where team members can rest for this very reason.
Tip: Long naps can make you feel groggy and impair your concentration, so don't snooze for more than 45 minutes. If you take a nap, do so in the early afternoon. The later it is, the more likely it is that it will interfere with your ability to sleep that night.
Sleep can refresh your mind after a stressful day, and improve your performance at work. Not getting enough of it can lead to serious health problems, and can affect your ability to function normally. To improve your ability to drop off, exercise regularly, increase your exposure to the daylight, and avoid having alcohol and caffeine near bedtime. Create the right environment for sleep, follow a bedtime routine, and establish a regular sleep pattern to give yourself the best chance of getting a good night's sleep.